Memphis music icon, Elvis Presley producer, country and soul-songwriting giant Lincoln "Chips" Moman has died.
The 79-year-old Moman died at a hospice facility in his hometown of LaGrange, Georgia on Monday, Moman's friend and longtime music industry associate Marty Lacker confirmed.
A gifted rockabilly guitarist and band leader in the 1950s, Moman went on to become one of the architects of Stax Records and author of some of the most enduring songs in the history of rhythm-and-blues and country music — from "Dark End of the Street" to "Luckenbach Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)."
Besides Sam Phillips, he was arguably the only man to effectively produce Elvis Presley — helping midwife The King's creative rebirth in 1969. It was Moman who helped build and shape Memphis' American Sound Studios and its house band, generating the most prolific run of chart hits ever.
"He was one of the most important people ever. He started out with Stax, then all the great recordings he made at American Studios," said local Grammy head Jon Hornyak, who also worked with Moman at his own studio. "Memphis music history wouldn't be the same without Chips. To me, definitely one of the all time great music makers in Memphis."
Born in Georgia in 1937, Moman hitchhiked to Memphis at age 17, where he was discovered by Sun Records star Warren Smith. Moman later joined up with brothers Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, traveling with them for sessions in California at the famed Gold Star Recording Studios. Moman watched and studied noted engineer Stan Ross behind the board. "And from what I'd learned in California, I decided to take that experience and put it to work in Memphis," recalled Moman in a 2008 interview.
His chance came when he was called to do a session at a tiny garage studio in Brunswick, Tennessee, owned by Jim Stewart. Moman and Stewart hit it off, and decided to join forces to start what would become Satellite, and eventually Stax Records.
Moman played a pivotal role in Stax's development. He was the one who recorded the label's initial hits by Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas and William Bell; helped develop "Last Night," the song that would become The Mar-Keys' smash; and was the one who was musically predisposed to turning Stax from a white country music company into a black R&B label in the first place. But a rancorous split in 1962 with Stewart and his sister and co-owner, Estelle Axton, brought all that to an abrupt end.
In 1965, Moman began developing a studio at 827 N. Thomas. American Sound Studios took off with the arrival of local teen garage band The Gentrys, who cut a million-selling smash called "Keep on Dancing."
"They were just kids, and I wasn't much more," recalled Moman. "But that got me started to the point where I could afford to hire a secretary."
That secretary, Sandy Posey, would be his next protégé, and would go on to record the Top 20 Grammy-nominated hit "Born A Woman." "After that, people started calling me to produce records," Moman said.
Between 1962 and 1972, American Studios was a veritable hit factory that produced more than 120 chart records. With Moman guiding them, the American house band, later known as the Memphis Boys — guitarist Reggie Young, drummer Gene Chrisman, pianist Bobby Wood, organist Bobby Emmons and bassists Mike Leech and Tommy Cogbill — would provide the essential ballast and delicate filigree found in the hits of Dusty Springfield ("Son of a Preacher Man"), Neil Diamond ("Sweet Caroline), Merrilee Rush ("Angel of the Morning") , B.J. Thomas ("Hooked on a Feeling"), Joe Tex ("I Gotcha"), Bobby Womack ("Fly Me To The Moon") and, perhaps most famously, Elvis Presley ("Suspicious Minds").
"He was one of the greatest record producers, musicians and songwriters. Chips was a pioneer," Lacker said. "He brought big name artists to record at American Studios because they wanted a hit. One of his specialties was an artist whose career had gone cold, and he rejuvenated their careers."
Moman left Memphis in 1972 and headed to Atlanta to start a new studio, taking most of the American band with him. His tenure in Atlanta was short-lived, however. After encountering problems with the new record label he'd set up, Moman decided to get out of the music business entirely.
Instead, he stopped in Nashville and wrote a hit song for B.J. Thomas ("(Hey Won't You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song"), and decided to continue in Music City. Moman would spend the next dozen years in Nashville, where he would dominate the country field — writing hits and producing albums by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Tammy Wynette and Ronnie Millsap.
Despite his success in Nashville, Moman was lured back to Memphis in 1985. Then-Mayor Dick Hackett and First Tennessee bank chairman Ron Terry, eager to re-energize a Memphis music industry that had been stagnant since the demise of Stax in 1975, offered Moman a studio site and financial incentives to return to town. At first, Moman was hailed as a potential savior of the city's music. He quickly recorded the high-profile Class of '55 album featuring Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison. But the hoped-for hits never materialized, and Moman eventually left Memphis again for good.
In poor health for much of the last decade, Moman would make occasional public appearances, performing with the American Boys or at Elvis-related events.
In the summer of 2014, Moman and company were finally given some long overdue recognition in the Bluff City. A Shelby County historical marker was placed on the site where American Studios once stood. Moman was also inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame that year.
Speaking from Nashville, guitarist Young perhaps best summed up what his friend meant to Memphis, and to the world of popular music.
"The songs he's written and recorded," Young said, "I can't imagine ever being forgotten."
Moman is survived by his wife Jane, daughter Monique and son Casey. Funeral arrangements were incomplete.